They invited Sweeny to participate: Did he have any characters to contribute to the show?
“We met David and hit it off immediately,” recalls Sorkin over the phone from New York City, where he still collaborates with Jeffrey Marsh in the Venn Diagrams. “We recognized a kindred spirit of modern-day cabaret and loved his angle on lounge.”
With that, the seed cracked and out popped Johnny Showcase, who’s been belting it out across Philadelphia stages in bright pink and peach leisure suits with his little dog Dottie ever since.
Sorkin recalls that Johnny snapped into focus quickly.
“[Sweeny] went from concepting [the character], to trying it out to having a fully formed show within about 12 months,” says Sorkin.
Though Sweeny’s Johnny character reminds of Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, Johnny is sort of the anti-Clifton. Kaufman’s aggressive, lazy lounge lizard is Sweeny’s hard-working, joyful, earnest showman. Clifton spit venom into his audience’s face; Showcase is all silk, satin and salty sweat of a man overwhelmed and intoxicated by his emotions.
And audiences love it. At a recent sold-out two-night run of Johnny Showcase and the Lefty Lucy Cabaret, Johnny, stripped down to his wife-beater undershirt and coated in sweat, had audience members literally jumping up and down as the colorful cast of regular characters brought the house down.
Johnny is but one star in an ever-expanding galaxy held together with ongoing soap opera plot lines and a cast of re-occurring characters such as love interest Vickie Fastlane (played by Jessica Edwards) and best friend and spiritual advisor Rumi Kitchen (played by Michael Baker of the Spinning Leaves). Shows sometimes include a cameo from Philadelphia theater queen Martha Graham Cracker, the alter ego of Dito van Reigersberg, co-founder of Pig Iron Theatre Company.
Sweeny writes skeleton set-ups and lets the cast improvise from there. But the musical numbers, that’s a different story.
At first, Johnny reveled in performing schmaltzy numbers like Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Then in 2009, Sweeny and producer Adrienne Mackey (also a member of The Truth, Johnny’s back-up singers), staged a full show homage to Prince with Johnny’s Philly Fringe debut Purr, Pull, Reign: A Litigigus Fantasy in D, the title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Purple One’s iron fist on copyrights.
As writing original songs for Johnny became the next obvious step, glittery wheels turned and sparked in Sweeny’s head.
“I realized I could write music like the music I grew up on,” he says with a smile. “If David Sweeny got up and started singing the type of songs I want to make, people would be like, ‘Why is he trying to sound like Sly Stone or Prince?' [But] if I could channel it through a character who can do whatever he wants then I can, as an artist, make any sort of music I want.”
But the subsequent big creative breakthrough came with great deal of physical pain.
Last autumn, Sweeny was speeding along on his bike near his house in South Philly when someone opened a car door in his path. He went down, hard, and fractured his elbow. Arm in a sling, Sweeny was unable to work.
So he spent the whole jobless winter writing songs and recording demos by himself, laying down the instrumentation and doing scratch takes of vocals. At first, the songs were for a fictional meta side-project for Rumi Kitchen and Johnny called The Mystic Ticket.
But the songs kept coming.
“Whether they’re funny or not, [they’re] songs that are infectiously joyful and silly and sexy,” he says. “I guess I’ve written about 25 or 30 songs.”
Next, a twist of fate lead to the biggest break in Sweeny and Johnny’s career to date.
Thanks in part to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign and studio engineer Rachel Russell, another artistic connection forged in the old days at World Café Live, Sweeny had a chance to send his demos to producer Henry Hirsch.
Hirsch produced Madonna’s “Justify My Love” (“one of the great compositions of the late 20th Century,” gushes Johnny), Lenny Kravitz’s catalogue and Mick Jagger. He loved the Johnny Showcase tunes.